A fool’s paradise

Author John Brandt points out It’s the system, not the individuals,who should be blamed for incompetence

Published 4 years ago on Aug 24, 2019 4 minutes Read

At almost every company we encounter (including, sometimes, our own), it can seem that we are surrounded by nincompoops. Things that should be easy are instead hard because, we believe, some nincompoop has forgotten to do his or her job, or didn't realize that there might be a better way to do the job, or couldn't care enough to even bother thinking about the job. We grow irritated as:

  • Our phone call to our new bank is put on permanent hold because the nincompoop customer service representative (CSR) doesn't know how to solve an issue with the bank's website, and has no idea who else might. We're forced to call back later or visit a local branch.
  • Our fancy coffee takes too long and ends up wrong anyway because a nincompoop barista asks questions (Medium or dark roast? Room for cream?) but doesn't listen to our replies. We're forced to choose between delay or drinking something we didn't order in the first place. Our car doesn't get repaired because a nincompoop mechanic forgets to test a key component. We're forced to come back a second time to fix the problem-or to drive an unsafe vehicle.

In every instance, it seems, a nincompoop has wasted our time and cost their companies:

  • labor, time, and materials (to rework the product or service they should have done right the first time); 

  • goodwill you and I are cranky, not only at the supposed nincompoop but at a company numbskull — enough to hire him or her in the first place); and 

  • revenue and profit (disgruntled customers often reduce their spending with knuckleheaded companies, or desert them altogether).

In other words, nincompoops are not just irritating but incredibly expensive too. So why do the companies that seem to hire nincompoops tolerate them?

It's Not the Nincompoops It's the Nincompoopery

Companies tolerate them because it's not the nincompoops — it's the Nincompoopery. Production failures, screw-ups, and faulty service aren't usually the fault of the supposed nincompoops with whom we're dealing but instead the Nincompoopery — i.e., the meta-foolishness of the companies and systems in which they're forced to work. Ill-planned, outdated, or ludicrous organizational structures can turn even the most eager employee into a nincompoop, or at least force him or her to seem like one. Consider from the previous examples:

  • If our bank had bothered to interview a sampling of new customers about what mattered most during a financial transition, they might have learned that in a commodity market — let's face it, most banks look pretty much alike — it's the simplicity of the transfer that matters most. A focus on making every aspect of the new customer experience easy to adopt and use, including training CSRs in common website issues, would not only save time and money but would also make customers more likely to recommend the new bank to others. The CSR wouldn't sound and feel like a nincompoop either.

  • If the coffee shop had bothered to analyze its in-store traffic and workflow during peak demand periods, managers would know that errors start at the order stage, as overwhelmed clerks struggle to manage lengthy lines of barely awake, caffeine-deprived customers. The shop could then schedule more employees during predictable demand spikes and reconfigure order and brewing processes to speed delivery while slowing down human interactions. Customers would be happier, and baristas wouldn't feel like harried, defensive nincompoops. 

  • If the repair shop had bothered to train and trust the mechanic on more than just technical skills — e.g., process improvement methodologies or the revenue and profit implications of his or her work-then he or she might have created an innovative way to review his or her work (a checklist, perhaps?) to prevent sloppy errors and wasted time. Satisfied customers would feel more confident in their repairs, and the mechanic wouldn't look or feel like a nincompoop.

  • It's important to note that in every instance above, there was no nincompoop problem; instead, there was a much larger Nincompoopery problem, in the way that each company failed to understand, design, and deliver customer value in ways that satisfied customers and boosted the bottom line. Even worse, the fix to each of these Nincompoopery problems was not unknowable or impossible but was, in fact, easily discernible and simple to implement. Yet in each case nobody in the company — not the employees, their managers, or senior leaders-seemed capable of overcoming tradition, inertia, and apathy to make simple changes that would save money and improve customer experience (and, ultimately, increase revenues and profits). Instead, like most companies (and most employees and leaders), they continued to do the same irritating things, in the same irritating ways, day after day, despite knowing better.

This is an extract from John Brandt's Nincompoopery published by Haper Collins Leadership